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Are backyard eggs really that dangerous?

With an increase in salmonella cases this year, health officials are pointing the finger at hobby farmers, which isn’t entirely fair.

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection are warning backyard chicken owners about the risks of salmonella. As it becomes more popular to keep chickens, and even ducks, as pets at home, whether for entertainment or as a source of eggs and meat, the CDC says it has seen a significant uptick in the number of salmonella cases linked to these backyard fowl. The New York Times reports:

“So far this year, 961 people in 48 states have contracted the disease from backyard birds. More than 200 people have been hospitalized, and one person in North Carolina has died. Outbreaks have been reported for several years now, but case numbers shot up sharply last year and are expected to continue to rise.”

Just to keep this in perspective, there are one million cases reported per year in the U.S. of salmonella, a bacterial disease that’s usually contracted by eating undercooked meat or eggs; but it can also be transmitted through animal feces. If a chicken coop is not kept clean and hands are not thoroughly washed, feces may travel into the home via boots, clothing, or freshly laid eggs, and possibly result in infection.

“While most people who contract salmonella typically recover without treatment after a few days of diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, some cases require hospitalization and some can be fatal.”

As Andy Schneider, a.k.a. the Chicken Whisperer, told the Times, the backyard bird movement is all about wanting connection with the source of one’s food: “People want to know where their food comes from.” But he says there’s a mistaken assumption that backyard eggs are healthier and safer than conventionally-raised ones, citing a recent study that found backyard eggs to have a greater likelihood of salmonella contamination than factory-produced ones.

(When I looked at the study’s abstract, it appeared to be restricted to small- [less than 3,000 birds] and medium- [3,000 to 50,000 birds] sized flocks, all within commercial layer facilities, which begs the question of how accurate its assessment of ‘backyard hens,’ as we hobbyists know them, can be. Five birds in a backyard is significantly different than 5,000 in a barn. But again, I was unable to read the entire study.)

I am a backyard chicken owner, and I have trouble wrapping my head around this notion that my hens’ eggs are somehow more dangerous than cheap grocery store ones. While it’s true that backyard eggs come out of the coop spotted with feces and bits of straw, looking significantly ickier than the pristine eggs sold at the store, there’s a lot more at stake here than risk of infection. As I see it, infection can be contracted anywhere, depending on one’s level of carelessness.

© Annastacia Sebek — One of the author’s lovely white Chantecler hens

What I am not comfortable with is supporting an egg-producing industry that keeps its birds sick and confined in tight, wire cages where they cannot spread their wings, peck for insects in the dirt, and can be found standing on the rotting carcasses of their companions. Supermarket chicken is hardly a poster-child for cleanliness, either, with significant levels of salmonella, hence the mandatory chlorine baths that meat must undergo while processing. (Read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals for graphic descriptions.)

While the CDC’s warning is valid and sensible, it seems counterproductive to scare people off from taking control of one tiny aspect of their food production. Better to teach good habits and common sense – handwashing, keeping a specific pair of boots and clothes for use in the coop, cleaning regularly and thoroughly, not allowing birds into the house. No kissing or hugging, either.

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